Sometimes after we’ve left a place, Matthew will pat his pockets and exclaim, “I’ve lost my keys (or wallet, or checkbook)!”  For a few minutes, he panics, but he always calms down when he finds the misplaced item, usually in an overlooked pocket.  The agitation is probably not good for his heart.

When I realize I’ve lost something, I give it up as gone forever.

Not far from our exit on I-95 (but still too far to turn back if one of us has forgotten something), a billboard displays the current Powerball jackpot in bright yellow letters, like a digital clock.  Every Thursday and Sunday, the number goes up or down.  I’ve never see the change, but I wonder if it’s like those train station announcement boards which flutter through every number until it reaches the correct one.

We tell ourselves, If the jackpot gets above $100 million, we’ll buy a ticket.  We repeat this as the number reaches 115, 132, 150, each time forgetting about the previous promise to buy a ticket.

When the newspaper runs stories about lottery winners, the winners’ material circumstances (truck driver, single mom, elderly widow living in a trailer) are always mentioned.  The winner inevitably thanks God.  In Le Million, when Michel strikes it rich, he doesn’t thank a higher power.  Instead, he dances with his neighbors in a long serpentine around his studio.

The losers are too numerous to warrant their own stories.  Some commentators call lotteries a regressive tax.  It’s the poor who buy tickets, and those funds funnel their way into government coffers.  Less charitable commentators call lotteries a tax on the stupid,but those commentators usually aren’t truck drivers, single moms, or elderly widows living in trailers.

When the Houston lottery reached a pharaonic two hundred thirty-seven million, some of Matthew’s colleagues at the Museum of Fine Arts formed a pool.  Everyone who put in a dollar would get part of the split.  (This is how we know that Michel is the virtuous one; when it’s unclear whether he or Prosper holds the winning ticket, he offers to split the winnings.  Prosper says no way.)

Over 80 people joined the Houston pool.  The organizer, an older African-American security guard, made a multi-page photocopy of all the tickets.  On the day of the drawing (perky announcer, ping-pong balls guided by the airburst of God), we flipped through the sheets, striking out page after page.

Given astronomical odds, buying 80 tickets is statistically indistinguishable from buying one.

Buying one ticket, however, is a 100% improvement versus buying none.  When Powerball recently reached 160 million, I stopped into by the newsstand near the University of Delaware and bought a ticket:  my chance to link hands with my creditors, to sing “Le Million!” 160 times.

I didn’t lose the ticket.  Matthew placed it in the hands of the bronze Buddha in the living room.  In a minor act of sacrilege, I lit a cone of incense and prayed for a winner.  That week, on the billboard, the number went up again.  No one wins.

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